Endings come with expectations, and Damon Lindelof is very aware of the bar set for the final season of “The Leftovers.” As he now crafts the show’s remaining episodes, Lindelof recently told IndieWire, “When Season 2 ended, a lot of prominent, very smart people in your field were like, ‘I’m good.’ And there was a part of us that was like, ‘Shit, should we just end it? Why continue?'”
Thankfully, they chose to keep going, but what comes next for “The Leftovers” will be measured against the widely-acclaimed brilliance of what’s come before. Among many Top 10 lists and other accolades, Season 2 of “The Leftovers” landed a Television Critics Association Award nomination for Outstanding Achievement in Drama, just as Emmys voting is underway. Discussion was feverish as the episodes aired, and Lindelof is well aware of the high-regard held for his creation.
Below, the writer digs into how his favorite TV finales set an example for how to end “The Leftovers,” what’s the “ultimate goal” for his characters and one wild idea for how to end the series.
[Editor’s Note: Spoilers below for “Breaking Bad,” “The Wire” and “The Leftovers.” Seasons 1 & 2]
A prominent talking point around “The Leftovers” has been the differences between Season 1 and 2. For me, the show had to do what you did in Season 1 to get where we need to go next.
I agree. I think it would’ve been inauthentic to present those characters in any other way, and I love Season 1 and I don’t make any apologies for Season 1. But I also feel, especially in our culture now, the judgement is immediate. You have a show like “Mr. Robot,” and you watch the pilot and you go, “This show is fully realized already.” It’s not like the finale of Season 1 of “Mr. Robot” is quantifiably greater than the pilot. It’s just consistently beautiful throughout.
But most television shows have to find themselves. You have to experiment and figure things out; learn from your mistakes and double down on your successes. And so I’m completely and totally with you and my peers in saying that Season 1 was absolutely essential. And again, I feel like Season 2 is not an apology for Season 1 or a reaction to Season 1. It’s the next level.
You’re a proponent of shorter series, right?
So how do you go into a show thinking, “I know this needs time to build,” but at the same time, “I only want to make three or four seasons. I need to hit the ground running.” And you’re in a climate where if something doesn’t hit right away, you may not even get those three or four seasons.
That’s why back when I was in the broadcast business, when “Lost” was up and running — even though the first season was highly successful, by both the critical metric and the ratings metric — you already started to hear, “Oh, this is a shaggy-dog story. They’re not going to be able to answer any of these mysteries,” or “How long until they get off the island?” et cetera, et cetera. And so all these shows that came in the wake of “Lost” — highly serialized, large ensembles — you’d start to see those showrunners at the upfronts, saying, “We have a five season plan. We’ve worked out all the mythology.” And what I wanted to say to them is, “That’s really great, but, um, maybe you should worry about episodes one, two and three.” Because if you get canceled after Episode 7, nobody cares what your plan was.
So I think that our job is to make the highest quality product that we can while we’re making it. “Breaking Bad” is one of my favorite television shows of all time, and Vince [Gilligan] and all his writers were very candid about saying, “We’re making this up as we go along. We’re letting the show tell us what it wants to be.” They would even do flash-forwards where Walt’s getting the gun out of the trunk of his car, and they were like, “Oh, we have no idea how we’re going to connect to that.” And the audience was like, “Oh, we’re cool with that.” And I thought, “Oh, this is interesting.” If you’re doing a mystery show, you do actually have to have answers to the mysteries. You can’t just start telling jokes and not give the punchlines. But if you’re just telling a story, the audience is very comfortable with you finding a more organic way to tell it. And I thought, “That’s the space that I want to live in.”
Noah Hawley is doing seasons of “Fargo,” and those ideas are basically like, “Oh, I want to tell a complete story over the course of these 10 episodes, and then it’ll be done and then we’ll go and tell another one.” That’s a really exciting way to watch television, too.
Does it feel differently now since you’ve done an ending of Season 1, you’ve done an ending of Season 2, and you’re writing an ending for Season 3, but now it’s also the overall ending?
It does feel different. I think that when we were working on Seasons 1 and 2, there was always sort of an understanding: Everything doesn’t need to be tied up in a neat little bow. We don’t have to rush this. We just need to move the characters toward some level of internal peace, if that’s the ultimate goal for them. And I think that, arguably, both seasons have very happy endings, although there was a tremendous amount of suffering to arrive at them. So I think the idea of the third season isn’t, “Oh, we need to turn up the knob now and it needs to twice the suffering and twice the level of the happy ending.”
But I also think that as we’re writing the third season — and, hopefully, as the audience is experiencing the third season — there is a degree of impending finality. There’s an idea of, “Well, the show is going to end in eight episodes,” and I do think the idea that where we leave the characters is where they’re going to be left in perpetuity. “Breaking Bad” ends with a very high degree of finality for Walter White, but on “Mad Men,” I felt the same degree of finality for Don Draper — even though his life clearly goes on. But I felt like I don’t need to see any of those characters anymore, I felt immensely satisfied. And “The Wire” is the same way: Life goes on in Baltimore. We didn’t solve shit. [laughs] But McNulty’s wake felt like an immensely satisfying ending. And that sort of transcended the plot or the story machinations.
We say this all the time — and by “we” I mean not just the writers on “The Leftovers,” but writers in general — but it really is all about the characters. The plot mechanics are sort of important, but, you know, I barely remember who Walter White was rescuing Jesse from in the finale. I know they were white supremacists and they were kind of responsible for forcing Walter to kill Hank — you’ll have to put a huge spoiler warning on all this — but the adversary became irrelevant. And so it was the character moves that lead to the final scene between Walt and Skylar that matters.
As a fan — as someone who’s going to be watching “The Leftovers” finale with immeasurable excitement — I like how you’re balancing that in your head.
It’s also illuminating. To me, I think that there’s this idea of sudden death and hospice, and there’s arguments to be made for both. If someone just suddenly dies, then that’s it — they’re gone. You didn’t go through any sort of big, emotional process of them dying and have to experience all that distress. Suddenly they’re gone, and that’s that. Then there’s hospice, where they’re dying for a while, and you know they’re dying, but that gives you the opportunity to sort of say everything that you wanted to say.
Every time that I’m watching a show that I love and I watch the last episode but I didn’t know I was watching the last episode, I end up feeling… not necessarily betrayed, but like the rug’s been pulled out from under me. I didn’t get to emotionally process it the way that I wanted to. When you know that a show’s going to end, however, there’s this added expectation from the audience of, “This has got to be an amazing death.”
Because if you’re in hospice, I want to be at your bedside, holding your hand, telling you how much I loved you, and you’re going to look me in the eye and tell me that you always loved me. And we apologize to each other for everything that we ever did wrong, and then I’m going to feel like this big, spiritual sort of release and then we’re all going to have a good cry and that’s going to be it. That’s what everybody wants from a finale, and when it’s not that, then you risk disappointment. Because as soon as something’s going to end, people start saying, “Well, this is what I want to have happen.” And when you tell people that the show is going to end, you open yourself up to expectation.
What’s interesting is “The Leftovers” started on an event where you don’t get any of that. It started with people disappearing out of the blue. You don’t have a moment to say goodbye, so it would be fitting, on some level, to end that way, as well.
Yeah, the great trick would be: “Oh, we told you we were going to make eight episodes, but after the seventh episode airs, we were just kidding. That was it.”
Oh my God.
Like, now you know how they felt!
You would have riots in the street.
Yeah, all 800 viewers would riot.
They’re quite vocal. They would do something.
Nah, no tricks, no twists. You know, I take some comfort in this not being that kind of show. I do think that the storytelling can be surprising, but that’s different than being twisty.
[Editor’s Note: Indiewire’s Consider This campaign is an ongoing series meant to raise awareness for Emmy contenders our editorial staff and readership find compelling, fascinating and deserving. Running throughout awards season, Consider This contenders may be underdogs, frontrunners or somewhere in between. More importantly, they’re making damn good television we all should be watching, whether they’re nominated or not.]